African Migrants Journey to U.S. Border in Search of Asylum

The U.S.-Mexico border, pictured here from the air, is receiving more attention as Afircan migrants cross it to seek asylum in the U.S. WikiImages. CC0.

The U.S.-Mexico border, pictured here from the air, is receiving more attention as Afircan migrants cross it to seek asylum in the U.S. WikiImages. CC0.

African migrants, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are beginning to congregate at U.S. border cities, especially San Antonio, Texas and Portland, Maine, seeking asylum. 

Many are flying to South America and joining fellow migrants in traveling well-trodden paths across Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, since they have been proven to work. Europe has also recorded a sharp drop in the number of African migrants and refugees who have reached its border.

Migrants who do try to make the treacherous journey across the Meditteranean often never make it there. The EU began a regional disembarkation policy last June, which named Libya as the new center for processing refugee and asylum applications for those seeking to leave Africa for Europe. However, asylum-seekers stopped by the EU-trained and equipped Libyan Coast Guard are brought back to civil war-torn Libya. Roughly 700,000 refugees are in local detention centers, facing starvation, sexual violence, and torture, according to Foreign Policy. There is also the possibility of being captured by Libyan smugglers. Many people have either gone missing or died. Official numbers have not been released.

Niger is taking in refugees so they don’t need to stay in Libya while they wait to be fully resettled in a new host country, but is only accepting a limited number of people due to its own low poverty rate. The resettlement process can take anywhere from 8 to 12 months. Often, Africans are finding that it is easier to avoid the Mediterranean altogether, due to the trouble Libya’s smugglers and detention centers can cause. 12 countries have so far pledged to help resettle the refugees, though the U.S. is not one of them.

American border agents first started noticing the high numbers at the Del Rio border station in southern Texas last month. According to Time, the sheer number of people is overwhelming. “When we have 4,000 people in custody, we consider it high,” Customs and Border Patrol’s commissioner John Sanders said, according to the BBC. “If there’s 6,000 people in custody, we considered it a crisis. Right now, we have nearly 19,000 people in custody. So it’s just off the charts.”

According to NPR, one such refugee journey involved a family of six flying to Ecuador and traveling by foot across Central America to eventually end up in the border city of Portland, Maine. They were fleeing civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their destination was a makeshift border shelter—a converted sports arena—that was described as “paradise” by the father. Randy Capps, the director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said, "That journey through Central America and Mexico has been facilitated by these large migrant caravans, by more sophisticated and faster smuggling routes, and it's an easier journey from Guatemala onward than it has been in the past."

Once they get through the border station, migrants are brought to relief shelters. Staff have been bringing in Swahili and French translators. Portland city officials are hopeful for the future, seeing the migrants as a necessary part of the future workforce, especially since the city has an elderly population. Still, the influx has stressed the city in terms of space. The converted arena currently houses over 200 people.

Volunteers assist at the shelter, offering food and medical supplies and playing games with the children. Donations of both money and supplies have been pouring in. Maine governor Janet Mills has stated that she wants the state to help out, saying that Maine’s residents have a “proud tradition” of caring for their neighbors.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.


TRIP REVIEW: Surfing South Africa to Help Out

The downfall of many volunteer organizations is cost. All too often there will be a $1000+ price tag on a trip that lasts only a week or two, not included airfare. This isn’t news, so it should come as no surprise that there are people out there who are working to fix this. One of these people is Daniel Radcliffe (no, not the actor). After collecting a Masters of Business, Daniel decided that it was time to give back to the world. He began to research volunteer trips. He too ran into this roadblock, but unlike someone like me who will simple notice the problem and then write about it, Daniel decided to do something. International Volunteer HQ was founded upon his return to New Zealand in 2007. “IVHQ was born with the goal of providing safe, affordable and high quality placements in areas where there is a real need for volunteers.” One of these places is South Africa.

It’s easy to read a statistic or to watch a documentary and think that we understand. Sure, we have problems here in the United States, there’s inequality and poverty everywhere, but, honestly, we cannot imagine what some citizens of the world live through. In South Africa the average life expectancy of a white South African is 71 years. The average life expectancy for the black population is 48 years. In 2005 it was estimated that 31% of the female population was infected with HIV, most of them black. There are 1,200,000 orphans. These are numbers and statistics, I could throw them onto a graph and you would see the vast differences, but you still wouldn’t know, you would still be using your imagination. Over there, it’s a reality. South Africa needs help and, if you feel so inclined, you can give it.

IVHQ sends volunteers to South Africa on the first and third Monday of each month. They normally arrive in groups of twenty to fifty people and the assist the community in an astounding variety of ways. Participants can involve themselves in a teaching project, in childcare, computer training, sports development and, an organization after my own heart, a surf outreach program.

Maybe you’re wondering what good a surf outreach program would do for children when they could be receiving extra medical attention or extra food and shelter. In the words of Ellen Varoy, Marketing and Media Coordinator for IVHQ, “The Surf Outreach program is designed to provide these children with an after school activity, keeping them off the streets of Cape Town and placing them in a safe and encouraging environment. Through the program, these children have the opportunity to learn new skills, take up new challenges, gain confidence and interact with our international volunteers, who the children look up to as role models.” It’s not about whether or not these kids learn to surf. It’s about showing them that there are people who care. It’s about being a ray of light on an otherwise bleak horizon. As a surfer would say, it’s about sharing the stoke. Would these children benefit more from help that focused on their health and nourishment? On the spreadsheet, probably, but where would they go after that? I say give them role models, give them hope and teach them that they can overcome. That, in my opinion, will last much longer than a loaf of bread.

The cost of IVHQ trips is one of the things that makes this organization so great. Prospective volunteers for the surf outreach program only have to pay $320 for one week. Longer periods of time require more money, being capped off at six months for $4580. This does not included airfare or visas or spending money. Also, if you want to participate in the surf outreach program you must know how to swim. I just thought I would point that out. If you are interested in any of the other programs offered for South Africa, you can find more information here

IVHQ is a fantastic option for people who want to volunteer for an affordable price. A full range of trips can be found at their website, As usual, if you were interested in the trip, but don’t think it’s for you, check back with next week for the next article in our series of trip reviews.

For testimonials by volunteers who completed the surf outreach program, check out: Testimonials  

To check out a video from the trip click here.


KINO CROOKE spent the last three years juggling school and travel. He most recently spent the last two months traveling across Spain before moving to New York to work with CATALYST.

What's Wrong with a Box of Toys?

It’s December 10th and Tom, Saskia and I have come to the half-completed Karin Children’s Clinic to watch a local women’s group hold a weekly meeting to discuss administrative matters. They manage projects from beadmaking to raising livestock on a pay-it-forward scheme amongst various families in the group. A man from the Heifer Foundation is busy reporting on the status of the cow breeding program. Nobody seems particularly impressed. I feel hot, having decided to stand outside to take pictures of the proceedings. We have arrived in time for what appears to be the last item on the day’s agenda. The opening of a large cardboard box with a Samaritan’s Purse logo on the side. I sigh.

The last memory I have of Samaritan’s Purse was seeing a manicured lawn and suburban house with SP signage square in the middle of an Ethiopian village that appeared wholly undeveloped. I still use that sight as a metaphor for badly-intended aid. Aid spent on the expats, not the community. What little I know of them, they seem to be a faith-based organisation of some kind. With, I suspect, much of the naive worldview that it entails. They are also somehow responsible for the arrival of The Box. The lady leading the meeting reads out a letter that came with The Box. I roll my eyes. 

Everyone applauds. The Box is opened. Pens and pencils are first apportioned out to the various parents in the group, so that they can hand them on to their kids for their school work. Then the remaining toys are handed out to the parents and to some additional children who have taken to looking at the proceedings with wide eyes. There was a huge collection of toys, many of which I would have considered trading my brother for in my youth. 

There was a slinky, and a stuffed green amphibian of some sort, as well as plasticine, koki pens, stickers, bubbles and all manner of other fun things. The toys were warmly received by children and parents alike. The kids who were in attendance went outside immediately to play with their allocated toys. One who had received a toy parachutist would throw it up in the air and catch it again in delight as it floated back down with an open parachute. Then throw it again immediately, over and over. Another who had stickers (but nothing on which to immediately stick them) promptly covered himself and his nearest friend. The point here, is that everyone loved the toys.

I had stopped my ‘holier-than-thou eye rolling at this point, having replaced it with a sort of philosophical confusion that I have still not managed to reconcile. On the one hand, I think that glee boxes full of toys like this are little more than a guilty West trying to salve its conscience with a dollop of God-inspired charity. The structural features in the relationship between the US and places like Uganda that brought about this inequality and sustain it (in the larger sense) remain as strong as they ever were. So you have some toys. Whoop. It would be even nicer if the people in the world with the money and the guns had made sure you had a better life from the beginning. If they had used them more responsibly, more humanely.

And yet.

There is no denying that this lone box, for all my bitching and angst against international politics, really did bring a good deal of joy. That the community of the Fairview Baptist Church probably meant well when they sent it. This box of toys was never intended to make the US get firmer about catching LRA leaders, or stop its corporations buying the minerals from the neighbouring  DRC. The ones which pay for continued bloodletting. Nope. The single, carefully-packed purpose of this box was to reach some children who had no toys, and give them the joy of the parachuting man. The stickers you can stick on your friends. A green frog toy.

So can I judge them wrong for sending it? Would I prefer that the box had never been posted, and that the Fairview Baptist Church had instead gone to picket Congress?

In my heart, honestly, I would have to pick The Box.

And then there are the pictures. I deeply dislike the stereotype that the kids in raggedy-looking clothing looking at the box of toys represents. They are pictures that I would refuse to allow published because they say all the wrong things to people who weren’t there to see them as live, happy, rich individuals. But what other pictures do you take to tell the story of kids waiting on a box of brand new toys? And if those are the pictures you end up with, should you never show them at all?

The pictures lie. Partly because they aren’t everything, and partly because we are so conditioned to respond to photographs like these with pity. Which can be powerfully dehumanizing and completely the wrong response. But rather than nothing at all, take the images as a poor facsimile of reality.

They won’t tell the story, just as that box won’t fix poverty. But they are an innocent effort by people who mean well. And wish to do better.

Richard Stupart is a freelance photojournalist with an interest in postconfilct recovery and representations of Africa. He writes regularly at

"Poverty Porn" Parody

This parody video calls on Africans to save frostbitten Norwegians... by donating radiators. Made by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, it highlights how exploitative "poverty porn" can be. As the Africa for Norway website asks, "What if every person in Africa saw this video, and it was the only information they ever got about Norway, what would they think?" 


Invisible Children's "KONY 2012"

This short film created by the nonprofit Invisible Children was released on March 5, 2012 and became the most viral video of all time. It reached 1.2 million views in 2012 making it the #1 top nonprofit video of the year. The film's purpose was to promote a "STOP KONY" movement, making Ugandan cult and militia leader, indicted war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony, globally known so that he would be arrested. The campaign resulted in a resolution by the US Senate and contributed to the decision to send troops by the African Union. The film was highly controversial. What do you think?